Friday, July 5, 2013

Alms by Cynthia Macdonald

This novel is about what it is to be good, in the charitable, altruistic sense, and how different paths to goodness play out in the real world. It should give you lots to think about in regards to privilege, charity, and whether the "white knighting" done so often by the upper classes is actually a legitimate good in the world. Though it is less explicit about it, I also believe it's a story about gender and control.

The story follows Martine, a young woman from a wealthy area of Toronto, who doesn't really fit in. She is not conventionally attractive, comes from a strange family, and never seems to be able to measure up to the standards of her impossibly blonde, upperclass contemporaries (I would hesitate to use the word "friends"), the Pines and Colterblakes. As a teenager, Martine accidentally ends up organizing a bottle drive fundraiser for a local charity, gets her picture in the paper, and never quite recovers from the rush that "doing good" gives her. The novel follows her through her pursuits to help "porepeople," but she is hampered by her actual distaste for the work and for interactions with the poor.

Martine is also troubled by a compulsive need to control her food intake, a condition that is heavily implied to be caused or at least triggered by her perpetually do-gooder father constantly feeding her stories of the world's unfortunates. She eats only ten "servings" a day and records them in a notebook. The eating disorder is a compelling device that serves as shorthand for Martine's struggle for control in her life, and fills out her motivation to be good - in every aspect of her life she struggles to fit into some impossible standard, most of all to take up less space (in every possible interpretation) - which reflects the overall condition of women in Western society.

The book isn't a feminist treatise though so much as an oddly beautiful exploration of goodness and the way the haves relate to the have-nots. How giving up money is not something that automatically makes you poor; the ever-present layers of privilege, the lack of abuse and discrimination are also factors.

The story could have been set anywhere, but it benefits from using Toronto as a backdrop because it so easily captures the particular Toronto makeup of the do-gooders and the downtrodden. As an employee of a non-profit in Toronto I could definitely relate to the scenes in Helping Hands and paticularly Martine's relationship with the clients. It also touches slightly on the neighbourhood-based identification of one's breed in the city, which probably isn't exclusive to Toronto but is certainly a big part of life here.

This book was a struggle at times, but I liked the themes and the characters (Glenys especially rang true) and the way it bucks traditional narrative devices, particularly the ending. I would read this author again.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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